Nothing but the same old story

“And I love you dear, but just how long can I keep singing this same old song”

Bob Dylan (The New Basement Tapes) – Kansas City

During the heady days of Kerry football when All-Ireland final appearances came and went as habitually as September itself, Ger Power bestowed the world with a line that in ten words, summed up both Kerry’s dynastic dominance and the players general nonchalance towards the whole thing. When pressed for comment before one of the deciders, Power coolly quipped “Just put me down for whatever I said last year”. Writing about Cork hurling is getting to that stage now. Money for old rope; that old, frayed rope that has tethered this team, and indeed their previous incumbents, for what seems an eternity. Does anyone really want to read about our defensive frailty again, or our lack of ball-winners? Or lack of everything else. So, apologies, but if you’re looking for the latest dissection of what went wrong, maybe it’s best to rehash Power’s immortal retort. Just put me down for whatever I said last year. Or the year before that.

By now we’ve become accustomed to the despondency that lingers in the wake of a comprehensive defeat, but there is something particularly maddening about last weekend’s no-show. This one just hits different. The All-Ireland final mauling was bad but at least we could take solace in the fact that it was a shot to nothing. Deep down, not even the most ardent of Cork supporters truly believed that a Cork victory was a conceivable outcome that day. Go back further if you wish, if you’re a glutton for that kind of mental anguish. Peruse through the annals of all the dark days that have befallen us over the past ten years or more and you’d be hard pressed to find a defeat that left such an acerbic aftertaste. Tipp ’16 perhaps? Kingston’s first game at the helm and a performance so indolent that the nine-point differential between the teams actually reflected kindly on our paltry efforts. Even then, at least we took a punt. Sure, the game is remembered now for Cork’s calamitous deployment of a sweeper (and subsequent refusal to use one) but Christ, at least we tried something!

What did we try last Sunday? Other than the same kamikaze game plan that has blown up in our faces so spectacularly in the last two national finals. Einstein’s witticism pertaining to the definition of insanity is well-worn for a reason you know. Back in November, Cork supporters had good cause to believe that the addition of two highly regarded coaches in Pat Mulcahy and Noel Furlong might infuse the set-up with the strategic nous that seemed so lacking against Limerick last summer. Alas, Sunday’s reiteration of those old failings did little to suggest we’ve learned any lessons at all. Instead, we marched into Sunday, unfaltering in our lunacy, once again attempting to thread the ball through the eye of a needle. Or more appropriately, the eye of a storm. We deserved everything we got and more.

These wonted fiascos are, of course, much more multi-faceted than tactical ineptitude. However many facets there are, you can be sure that they each exhibit some cause for concern. But above all else, the most galling aspect of our latest capitulation is that it has solidified the national perception of the Cork hurlers as pushovers, hurling’s soft-touch that will acquiesce to defeat at the first sign of confrontation. The hard-fought victories over Clare and Kilkenny last year should have put paid to that notion, yet that blemish on our character has proved difficult to shake. Roy Keane once revealed how before a game against Spurs in the early 00’s, Alex Ferguson’s team-talk amounted to nothing more than “Lads, it’s Tottenham”. Such a cutting appraisal encapsulated their opponent’s reputation as a team who, despite smatterings of individual brilliance, were perpetually undermined by a meek underbelly. See where I’m going with this?

Anthony Nash tackled this perception / misconception last week, and in doing so, inadvertently laid bare the litany of problems that lay at our doorstep. “We were inconsistent. We got selection and gameplans wrong. We were outbattled. Well beaten. But I know we were not soft.” Not soft then Anthony, just all of those other things you mentioned. Well thank God for that! To be fair, he has a point. Whatever softness does reside in the psyche of these Cork hurlers, it is unquestionably exacerbated by the fissures that exist in every other department. An absence of cohesion can easily manifest itself as an absence of work-rate, in the same way that a lack of adequate coaching in the tackle can masquerade as a lack of physicality. There was a dearth of ball-winners with paws like shovels in Nash’s time too and yet, for a period of time at least, going long from the puck-out wasn’t deemed a completely futile endeavour. Nobody is expecting ball to be rained down on top of the half-forward line with snow on it but don’t tell me that a short tap to the corner-back is the only alternative either.

Next weekend, we’ll travel to Thurles again in our droves. Perched in the long grass, awaits a Clare team that, from the outset, have been disregarded as also-rans in a four-horse race to clamber out of Munster. One could argue that an upset is on the cards, only for Cork’s previous couple of performances to render Clare’s status as underdogs as wholly unwarranted. Lohan will come with a plan and any plan that features Tony Kelly is bound to rattle a few cages. Still, two wins from four would probably see us stagger punch-drunk through to the latter stages of the championship and based on last weekend’s viewing from Leinster, an All-Ireland semi-final berth is certainly not out of the question. But somewhere along the line, Limerick or Waterford or any other team worth their salt will be waiting and saying to themselves, “Lads, it’s Cork”. Like it or not, that’s now the painful reality of our current standing in the game.

Kingston remarked after the match last Sunday that the defeat wouldn’t define our season and while his stoicism in the aftermath of such humiliation was to be expected, I’m afraid the opposite could well be closer to the truth. Unless something drastically improves between now and the end of May, that Limerick game looks set to not only define this season, but this entire, wretched era.

The expectation of something different. The promise of something better.

But ultimately, nothing but the same old story.

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